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free movement within certain territories. Until
recently, most of the islands in question had been
closed to foreign visitors. The two leaders said
they share a common desire to promote informal
contacts between former Japanese inhabitants and
Russian citizens on these islands.
Such an outcome of Putin’s visit came as a
surprise to many; few had predicted that events
would go this way. Skeptics on both sides had
not expected anything serious at all. Japanese
optimists continue to indulge in wishful thinking that
the Kremlin would cede the Kurils to them out of
generosity or as a gesture of peace and friendship.
There is a widespread presumption in Japan
(and the West) that Putin with his nearly absolute
power in the country does what pleases him. This
implies that lands can be taken and given should
the Tsar so wish. Wishful thinkers in Tokyo hope
for a kind of solution to the long-standing territorial
dispute over the Kurils in a manner resembling one
that was reached between Moscow and Beijing.
In 2004, Russia handed over some disputed
lands to the other side. However, the uninhabited
territories along the Amur-river banks did not have
any economic or military significance, and were
small in size.
The Kurils are not like that. These islands are
rather big and strategically located, containing
huge biological and mineral resources. The Kuril
chain stretches 1,200 km from the Kamchatka
peninsular in the north to Hokkaido Island in the
south. It comprises 56 islands with a total area of
10,500 square kilometers. Russia's control over the
entire chain ensures its sovereignty over the Sea
of Okhotsk, and renders it as a type of inner lake.
Biological resources in this area are huge; the Sea
of Okhotsk alone provides three million tons of fish
annually. Additionally, there are two non-freezing
straits in the southern part of the Kuril chain that
connect the Okhotsk Sea to the Pacific Ocean. They
ensure free passage of Russian ships - including
submarines - into the expanse of the Pacific.
But the most important factor is that the Kurils
population (20,000) has been for seventy years
entirely Russian by passport and national identity.
Following the September 2, 1945 unconditional
capitulation to the Allied Nations, Japanese troops
on the Kuril chain surrendered and sailed back to
Japan's core islands together with Japanese settlers.
This means that “former Japanese inhabitants of the
South Kurils” are elderly people aged more than
70, who can hardly remember anything about the
area. Historically, the Japanese were not Kuril
native inhabitants. They started to arrive here as
colonizers from the south about the same time
(some historians say 70 years later) as the Russians
did from the west.
The Chair of the Council of the Federation,
Valentina Matvienko, when in Japan on an official
visit in 2016, said Russia would never agree to
a loss or a restriction of its sovereignty over the
Kurils. " The issue to whom the islands belong is
questionable for Japan, but not for Russia", she
stated. What Tokyo can hope for is that Japanese
citizens might be granted special rights for private
visits, and Japanese firms favored for lucrative
contracts in the area.
PEACE TREATY AND ECONOMY
In an interview with Nippon T V, Putin insisted that
Russia has no territorial issues with Japan. " Much
rather, it is Japan who considers that it has territorial
issues... and we are ready to discuss this". At the
same time, the Kremlin’s inhabitant finds that the
absence of a formal peace treaty between the two
nations "an anachronism we inherited from the
past... it must be dealt with".
A peace treaty would give Moscow and Tokyo
solid ground on which to build a better relationship.
"Starting from 1956, when our diplomatic relations
were restored, we have been lacking a firm footprint
on which we could build up our relations", the
Russian leader said. At the same time, he made
it clear that Moscow is not desperate to see a
peace treaty signed at all costs. In the meantime,
Japanese politicians seem to be willing to trade their
signatures on that peace treaty for territorial gains.
During the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Soviet-
Japanese trade grew steadily. Moscow was buying
electronic home appliances and machine tools -
including those that helped the Russian navy reduce
submarine noise signatures by precise machining
of their propellers. Japanese imports were mainly
natural resources, but sometimes it took such
interesting forms as Japanese airlines hiring Tupolev
Tu-114 and Ilyushin Il-62 long-range airliners to
fly them to Western Europe. In the 1960s, these
machines seemed so high-tech (reducing travel
time from Japan to France from weeks to hours),
that those who flew on them acquired a lasting
impression of Soviet technological might. This
impression further grew in the eyes of Japanese
passengers as they overflew the vastness of Siberia.
Today, Russia remains a prominent supplier of
fossil fuels to its eastern neighbor. Japan - as well
as its close neighbors China and Korea - have also
been buying lots of oil in the Middle East, a region
suffering from wars, rivalry and instability. In view
of that, Russia is immensely important as a major
Tokyo has been monitoring closely (as well as
enviously and jealously) the process of Moscow
and Beijing making big deals on oil and natural gas.
Contracts landed in 2014-2016 have tremendously
reduced China's dependence in Middle East oil,
thus making it able to execute policies with less
fear of a cut in the energy flow (as a result of
military or piracy action in the straits of Indonesia
and Malaysia). Clearly, a more balanced system of
supply from multiply sources is very desirable for
countries like Japan with a big manufacturing base
Il-38N at Elizovo, Kamchatka peninsular
24/02/2017 2:49 PM
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